Friday, March 25, 2016

Quote of the day

I was taking another look recently at a 1994 essay by Sankaran Krishna[*] that I cited in my diss. (some years ago).  This passage strikes me as a nice summary of at least one aspect of Nehru's worldview: 
Despite his firm belief in the timeless existence of a spiritual and civilizational entity called "India," Jawaharlal Nehru nevertheless felt compelled to begin his appropriately titled Discovery of India with a solid and physicalistic description of her "natural" frontiers.  Nehru's imaginative geography depicted impassable mountain ranges, vast deserts, and deep oceans that produced a "natural" cradle for what became India.  Anxiety regarding the physical boundaries of the nation gets inscribed early in Nehru's Autobiography.  The narrative script that runs through that definitive work in imagining India clearly traces her downfall to porous frontiers and, more importantly, to an unfortunate timing by which disunited and fragmenting India encountered the cresting and united civilization of the British.  The encounter not only produced colonial rule but also with it, Nehru argued, the sources of India's eventual redemption: modernity, science, the rational spirit, and, most importantly, national unity.
Notice the tension between, on the one hand, the reference to "impassable" mountains and "vast" deserts and, on the other hand, the reference to "porous frontiers."  The mountain ranges clearly weren't impassable enough, nor the deserts vast enough, to prevent multiple conquests of the subcontinent.

The idea of 'natural frontiers' has a long and somewhat checkered history.  Although natural features of the landscape do play some role in how the territorial boundaries of states have evolved, that role I think is a secondary or even tertiary one -- that is, I incline to the view that it's secondary in terms of boundaries' actual on-the-ground history, as distinguished from the often larger role 'natural frontiers' play in the legitimating myths of some nation-states.[**] 
*Sankaran Krishna, "Cartographic Anxiety: Mapping the Body Politic in India," orig. published in Alternatives v.19 n.4 (Fall 1994), reprinted in Challenging Boundaries, ed. M. Shapiro and H. Alker (U. of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 193-214.  The quotation is from p.195 (endnotes omitted).

**The relevant literature is fairly extensive and I won't go into it here (though I'm probably willing to do so in the comments if someone wants).


hank_F_M said...


Nice quote.

India paid for his assumption of impassible mountains in 1962; a basilly undefended border and no contingency plans. Though the amount of preparation China had to do suggests that that border is not exactly porous.

LFC said...

Yes. I wasn't thinking about the '62 India-China war in this connection, but you're right.

In a sort of related point, there's the disputed Siachen Glacier, where Indian and Pakistani soldiers still face each other and still get killed by weather-related events (this happened on the Indian side again very recently, I forget whether it was an avalanche or what).

Krishna in the "Cartographic Anxiety" article discusses Siachen (which he says in an endnote means "Rose Garden") on pp.200-201; despite occasional efforts at de-escalation etc., I don't think the situation on the glacier has changed much in the 20+ years since the article was written. (The glacier itself may be affected by climate change, but I don't know.)

(p.s. I shd wish you a happy Easter.)

Peter T said...

Ah yes. "Natural frontiers". I recall seeing a map (engraved in marble, no less) of Gandhi's "Bharat Mata", that included Myanmar and Sri Lanka as well as Pakistan.

LFC said...

Interesting. I confess I had to look up Bharat Mata just now. At a glance the Wiki entry on it appears pretty good (unlike some others which are quite awful).

I'm more familiar w/ 'natural frontiers' in the French context, but will leave that for another occasion.

Peter T said...

Google refreshed my memory. It's in the Bharat Mata temple in Varanasi (wish I had checked before I last visited in 2001 - could have toured it with my son). Takes in Nepal as well.

Moghul rule, of course, often extended well beyond the Hindu Kush. Aurangzeb's son Kamran was governor in distant Herat.